This enamel miniature, by Christian Friedrich Zincke, is a portrait of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (born 1660, died 1744). Churchill rose to prominence as ‘first lady of the bedchamber’ for Queen Anne (born 1665, died 1714). Through her intimate personal relationship with the Queen, she became one of the most powerful women in England.
Sarah (then Jennings) and Anne Stuart played together as young ladies-in-waiting, referring to each other by the nicknames ‘Mrs Morley’ (Anne) and ‘Mrs Freeman’ (Sarah) . They developed a close and intimate friendship that lasted for many years. ‘Romantic friendships’ between young women were often encouraged during this period as a form of preparation for heterosexual marriage. However, the pair’s relationship strengthened through Sarah’s marriage to John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. It also survived Anne’s to George, Electoral Prince of Hanover, in 1683, which saw her assume the new title of Princess of Denmark. Anne stood firm by Sarah when their relationship was labelled an ‘immoderate passion’ inappropriate for a Princess and subjected to intense scrutiny by the Royal family. She even resisted the order of Queen Mary to end their relationship, reassuring Sarah of her ‘most sincere and tender passion’.*
Sarah, a devoted advocate of the Whig Party, was able to exert significant political influence over the Queen. She was famous for her frank and candid advice, indifference to rank and for being bullishly outspoken However, their relationship began to suffer when Anne began to listen more closely to her Tory advisors and became resentful of Sarah’s repeated attempts to influence policy. Sarah also became angry when she discovered that Anne had been spending two hours a day in private with her younger relative, Abigail Hill Masham. It is thought that Sarah instructed her own secretary, Arthur Maynwaring, to author and circulate ballads and pamphlets which satirised the ‘sweet service’ and ‘dark Deeds at Night’ that Abigail allegedly provided to Anne. ** In 1711 Sarah and her husband were dismissed from the court.
Zincke was one of the most important enamel painters of his time. He was born in Dresden where he was apprenticed to his goldsmith father, before moving to London in 1706, to work in the studio of the important enameller, Charles Boit. In the 17th century, new techniques were developed in painting enamel, which allowed the creation of miniature portraits resembling tiny oil paintings. Enamel miniatures first became fashionable in continental Europe, but quickly became an international art form as the painters looked for new markets. They were particularly popular in Britain from the 1720s to 1760s.
*Marlborough, Sarah Jennings Churchill, Duchess of, (assisted by Hooke, N), An account of the conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, from her first coming to court, to the year 1710. London, G. Hawkins, 1742. Quoted in Donoghue, Emma, Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801, New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
** See: Jenning, Rebecca, A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex between Women Since 1500, Greenwood World Publishing, Oxford, 2007.